By Steve Silverman —
(CBS) — Even with a rivalry loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Chicago Blackhawks still have the best record in the NHL and they have shown that they are not going to give up their title easily.
They have been the most consistent and offensively explosive team in the NHL, and even with goalie Corey Crawford on the sidelines, they still have an excellent chance to win most games.
Backup goalie Antti Raanta performed well enough against the Canucks Friday night to get the victory, but he couldn’t stop Ryan Kesler in the eighth round of the shootout. Any loss to the Canucks is aggravating, but it doesn’t change the path this team is on.
The star power on the Blackhawks is widely recognized as the primary reason for their success. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith are dominant players who create multiple problems for opponents.
The next group of stars includes Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook, and they are also formidable.
However, the depth players on the Blackhawks roster are largely unsung and may have as much to do with the team’s overall success
Start off with second-year player Brandon Saad, who would be on the cusp of stardom if he was playing on another team. Saad, is a role player on the Blackhawks, but he is very capable offensively and he can make plays on both ends of the ice.
The 21-year-old Saad is the team’s sixth-leading scorer with 12 goals and 14 assists in 38 games. At 6-1 and 205 pounds, Saad has the size and strength to go into the corner and win the battle. But it’s his skill level that is turning him into an impressive player.
Saad regularly plays right wing on a line with center Andrew Shaw and left wing Bryan Bickell. Shaw is an all-out hustler who is starting to find the score sheet with more regularity than he has in the past.
Shaw, 21, has scored 10 goals and 10 assists in 36 games, and has grown quite a bit in stature since his triple overtime winner in Game One of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. Shaw may have been the beneficiary of a double-deflection – “I love shin pads!” – but there was nothing lucky about his positioning.
He was right in front of the net and that’s where he’s supposed to be.
Bickell was a mini-monster for the Blackhawks in last year’s playoffs, and he was rewarded with a four-year, $16 million contract in the offseason.
Bickell has the size and strength at 6-4 and 233 pounds to dominate in the slot area and the corners. That’s just what he did during the postseason, but the Blackhawks have not gotten enough of it in the regular season.
Bickell has just five goals and one assist through 24 games — he was sidelined with a left-knee injury – and he needs to display more of the grit that he had during the postseason.
Defenseman Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson have been sensational for the Blackhawks this season. The duo can’t match Keith and Seabrook when it comes to offense, but they have been superb on the defensive end.
Oduya is smart, aggressive and an excellent skater, while Hjalmarsson has the gift of nearly always being in the right place at the right time.
Hjalmarsson has 15 points and a plus-11 rating, while Oduya has 10 points and a plus-10 rating.
Head coach Joel Quenneville is the beneficiary of this defensive depth. He can put either the Keith-Seabrook duo or the Oduya-Hjalmarsson pair against the opponents’ top line without fear.
That keeps the Blackhawks from wearing out either unit.
Center Marcus Kruger and versatile forward Kris Versteeg area also vital contributors. Kruger has won 56.8 percent of his face-offs this season, while Versteeg can play any of the forward positions on any line that Quenneville chooses to put him. His versatility makes him quite valuable.
Kane, Toews and Keith will ultimately decide this team’s fate in the Western Conference Final or the Stanley Cup Final. However, it’s the depth that will help them get to the glory parts of the season, and those players deserve recognition.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.